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How We Built The Space That Young Queer People In Manipur Always Needed

Manipur, being a conflicted border state, is a very sensitive region when it comes to identity and rights. The state prioritizes issues like the citizenship crisis, insurgency, militarization, substance abuse, unemployment, migration, high HIV prevalence, and high school dropout rate. But youth and Queer issues are seen as ‘soft’ issues and often ignored. And this means that young queer people have no social support when it comes to their health and well-being. With already limited resources, these young people have a difficult time competing for their basic survival, leave alone livelihoods.

Stigma, lack of visible support system, and almost no safe spaces for networking and counseling means that queer adolescents and youths do not come out and seek support in their home state. Migration becomes the only way to explore themselves, learn new things and earn a living outside the state where they feel more liberated. But is migration the only solution? And what happens to under-privileged youth without these opportunities?

For a long time, I believed migration was the only way to be myself. It indeed was one of the safest solutions for me and for many others too. For those queer individuals, who couldn’t migrate, mostly have little understanding about their sexuality & orientations due to lack of knowledge and support system and the issues arising out of it which indirectly affects their well being and mental health.

Board members of Ya_All Manipur. Image Source: Facebook.

Our Story

Ya_All, which reads as “Yawol” in Manipuri, translates to “Revolution”. The network was formed on May 17, 2017 (International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia), as a secret WhatsApp group to discuss personal issues faced by queer youths in Manipur.

With increasing stigmatization and discrimination, and the need to create a support system for each other, we came out openly as a collective, and now we work all through the year as an independent voluntary youth network initiating conversations and dialogue around youth health and sexuality  issues.

In 2019, Ya-All set up Meitram—a space run by queer youth—to address the community’s problems. It is first of its kind space run by queer individuals which provides free services to the community. Meitram aims to empower and equip the youth and de-stigmatize the conversations around these issues.

A view of Meitram. Photo courtesy of the author.

Health And Well-Being For Manipur’s Queer Youth

Three main obstacles to good health for queer youth lie before us.

Many have taken to abusing substances in one form or the other. Manipur shares roughly a 298 km long border with Myanmar. Because of this, the state has easy access to all sorts of drugs. Name anything and you will get tablets, powder, crystal, and alcohol at cheaper rates. The proximity to ‘Golden Triangle’, known for illegal drug trading in the world, is a big challenge.

Queer people are very much prone to substance abuse .  I am a substance abuse survivor who survived two overdoses. The discrimination towards individuals who abused drugs are so high that no one talks about substance abuse among queer community in India. This, in the long run, affects their health and productivity at workplaces.   I might be one of the first queer person who is openly advocating against drug abuse because of the adversity of the issue. Hope more people will acknowledge the need and support the cause.

Sexual and reproductive health issues also affect queer youth, as does mental health. Most people do not access health services because of the homo-negative set ups or heteronormative settings in health centres and institutions. The language used in the medical field is also as insensitive as it is heterenormative. Queer people are judged based on their behaviours even before they seek therapy—all because of a lack of queer affirmative treatment.

To address these issues, we have partnered with Mariwala Health Initiative, which has hand-holded us in creating a mental health space for queer youths in our co-working space. We provide free peer counselling and also link professional therapists with our clients for free counseling services. Another partner, on reporting crimes like online bullying and extortion, is Blued, a gay dating app, with whom we have opened a helpline for North East India.

A  Co-Working and Cafe Space for Queer Community

Another issue is of employment. Without safe workplaces, queer people are left with few options.

Numerous trans women, or “Nupi Maanbi”,  work as make-up artists who run beauty parlors for their livelihoods. It is one of the most common ways of earning. But unfortunately, beauty services have been stereotyped as their main lifeline. Trans men prefer to get into jobs that are seen as “manworthy”, thanks to the patriarchy. There is a huge divide in the types of jobs different people take up. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are still very invisible in the Manipur. And because of these stereotyped occupations, many are lured in by the idea of fitting into a role that shows how “manly” or how “womanly” they are rather than the productive or diverse things they could do.

Meitram provides an inclusive, safe space for queer individuals (young and old!) to be themselves, network, and grow through information and services. We use tools like sports and games, art, fashion, and media to empower and advocate for our space and rights. There’s free peer-to-peer training, advocacy, and of course, free tea, coffee, snacks, and a shoulder to lean on when you need it.

Short Homestay Support for Queer People

Many queer people face crises at home or elsewhere. Sometimes they are thrown out of home or run away due to harassment or violence in their surroundings. On May 17 , 2019, our two-year anniversary, Ya_All  opened the office space for those queer individuals facing such crisis. Presently,  we support day-stay during office hours but many requests have come, asking to stay in our space. While our resources are limited, we are opening a home from our own resources which can host up to 20 individuals.

Into A Rainbow Future

We noticed that in the larger queer movement in the country, the queer voices from Northeast India were under-represented or often tokenistic.

Ya-All is the first-of-its-kind queer &youth-led network of LGBTQ people and allies in Manipur, working openly at the grassroots level in the region. It was more of a need than a cause that created Ya_All, which allows us to raise our issues. Ya_ All believes in every individual’s ability. It’s just that we need a safe space and a safer home to nurture the skills and talents we have. For queer individuals in this border state, our needs and rights have long been neglected. However, we will keep raising our voices against racism, exclusion, and discrimination.

Queer Manipuri and North Eastern people breathe the same air, enjoy the same sun, and share the same country as the mainland people, and therefore, we believe we should get the same love, attention and rights.

Featured Image source: Manipur Youth Network Ya_All
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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